Issues about the Paradox of Demonstrating Acts of Intellectual Humility, Noel L. Clemente

Brian Robinson’s (2023) response to my paper (Clemente 2023) raised a number of important issues regarding what I described as the modeling paradox of teaching intellectual humility (IH). He questioned two crucial concepts—what I take IH to be, and what I describe as modeling—that might affect the cogency of my argument. Additionally, he suggested a different approach to the modeling paradox, as well as a reflection on having multiple available accounts of IH. In this response, I address his questions and hope to improve my argument and continue the dialogue about this important intellectual virtue. … [please read below the rest of the article].

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Article Citation:

Clemente, Noel L. 2023. “Issues about the Paradox of Demonstrating Acts of Intellectual Humility.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (6): 27–34.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

This article replies to:

❧ Robinson, Brian. 2023. “Paradoxical Teaching and the Art of Pedagogically Demonstrating Intellectual Humility.”  Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (4): 10-15.

Articles in this dialogue:

❦ Clemente, Noel L. 2023. “‘Here’s Me Being Humble’: The Strangeness of Modeling Intellectual Humility.”  Social Epistemology: 1-14. doi: 10.1080/02691728.2022.2161859.

1. Recap of the Paper and Robinson’s Questions

In my paper, I looked at three different accounts of IH vis-à-vis some paradoxes of humility:

Low Self-Assessment. This is the disposition to underestimate one’s intellectual strengths.

Low Concern. This is the disposition to have a low concern for one’s intellectual status and entitlements.

Limitations-Owning. This is the disposition to be appropriately attentive to, and to own, one’s intellectual limitations.

I first analyzed the Self-Attribution Paradox (someone saying “I am humble” does not seem so humble) in each of these accounts, then discussed what Robinson (2022) called the Inculcation Paradox, to set the stage for analyzing what I called the Modeling Paradox of teaching intellectual humility. Consider how modeling acts of intellectual virtue is one of the important strategies for teaching intellectual virtues (Baehr 2015, Battaly 2006, 2016, Ritchhart 2002, Tishman, Perkins, and Jay 1995). More specifically, consider the teacher demonstrating such an act to her students. There is some strangeness in demonstrating an act of IH: imagine a teacher who just performed an act of intellectual humility (depending on which account of IH is being is considered), then says something along the lines of:

(M) ‘What I just did is an example of IH’.

This is what I called the Modeling Paradox: by saying (M), a teacher does not seem to model IH in a way that does not contradict her supposed humility.

I will further recap my analysis of the Modeling Paradox vis-à-vis the three accounts of IH in section 3, but let us first enumerate Robinson’s (2023) questions regarding my article:

(1) How many distinct accounts of IH are there actually, and which (if any) of these are competing and mutually exclusive?

(2) Could the Modeling Paradox be founded on a confusion regarding whether IH is a trait or state?

(3) Are assertions such as (M) required to model IH, or any intellectual virtue in general?

(4) Is the question of whether or not an account of IH is susceptible to the Modeling Paradox better treated as an empirical question?

I will not address these questions chronologically. Instead, I shall start with (3) and (2), two concerns which helpfully prompt clarifications on, and potential constructive revisions (and even objections) to, my original argument. Next, I will address (4), which problematizes the approach to the Modeling Paradox and, I believe, gives light regarding what this paradox is ultimately about. And finally, I end with (1), an inevitable question that arises in any analysis involving multiple accounts of IH.

2. Modeling vs Demonstrating Intellectual Humility

I begin my reply by considering Robinson’s concern about the peculiarity of the modeling utterances that I used in my analysis. He wonders whether explicitly pointing out one’s own act of IH—saying (M): “What I just did is an example of intellectual humility”—is necessary for modeling IH. After all, the modeling paradox is rooted in these kinds of assertions, and if using one’s own behavior as an example of IH is not required for modeling, then the paradox dissolves in modeling instances that do not include such assertions.

I responded to this concern in my paper by using Ritchhart’s (2002) distinction between ‘demonstration modeling’ and ‘authentic modeling.’ Demonstration modeling occurs when someone explicitly points out a particular behavior for their interlocutor to imitate. A few examples include: “a dance instructor showing students how to pirouette, a tennis coach instructing the players how to execute a backhand stroke, or a science teacher manifesting attentiveness and inquisitiveness in having attention to details so that her students would learn how to properly make observations” (Clemente 2023, 8). In contrast, authentic modeling involves simply being in character; as Robinson (2023, 13) said, a teacher who models IH in this way simply performs acts of IH without necessarily pointing out her actions to her students. Thus, Robinson is right to imply that “there is no Modeling Paradox for an authentic modeling of IH” (Clemente 2023, 8). After all, utterances that lead to the Modeling Paradox such as (M) seem to betray the authenticity of the modeling intended. Thus, I agree with Robinson that such utterances are not necessary for an authentic modeling of IH.

That brings us to our next question: are such utterances necessary for demonstration modeling? In my paper, I did not assert that they are necessary, but I responded in terms of a dilemma: a teacher’s attempt at demonstrating IH would be either imprecise or paradoxical. First, look at a different example of demonstration modeling: a tennis coach trying to teach particular strokes to her students. Saying something like “This is how you do a forehand stroke” alongside the actual execution of the stroke helps make her demonstration precise. On the other hand, if she did not use such assertions and just ask her students to watch her play a match, it would be more difficult for the students to grasp what precisely is being demonstrated. Thus, to bring the discussion back to IH: “either we don’t use assertions such as (M) and our demonstration is imprecise, or we do and our demonstration becomes paradoxical” (Clemente 2023, 8).

Although I stand by the argument I made in my paper, Robinson’s remarks made me think of two issues regarding how I used the notion of demonstration modeling.

First, I wonder whether the term “modeling” brings some confusion here, much like how the term “humility” brings the strangeness in one’s self-attribution. Earlier drafts of my paper already contained the distinction between authentic and demonstration modeling but I have repeatedly received feedback on the peculiarity of assertions such as (M). Even after revisions to try to make this clearer, such as by using “demonstrating” alternately with “modeling” from sections 4 of my article onwards, Robinson’s comment on this seems to suggest that the pervasive meaning of modeling includes the concept of authentic modeling. I wonder, then, if using “demonstrating” instead of “modeling” both in the title of my original paper and in what I called the paradox might have reduced (if not eliminated) the confusion. Robinson will likely agree with this given that he aptly used “Demonstrating Intellectual Humility” in the title of his reply, rather than “Modeling.” I did the same in the title of this response, and will henceforth call it the Demonstration Paradox for the rest of this paper, in hopes of making the distinction clearer.

Second, even if we grant that the Demonstration Paradox occurs only in demonstration modeling, I am not entirely certain if my earlier argument was enough to insist that demonstration modeling requires assertions such as (M). Again, I did not show that (M) is necessary to demonstrate IH, only that demonstrating IH without something like (M) would result in an imprecise demonstration of IH. Someone who disagrees with me might bite this bullet and show that an imprecise demonstration of IH is still pedagogically effective, which would imply that we do not need (M), so we do not need to worry about the Demonstration Paradox after all. I am keen to see such an argument, but in the meantime, I do not have a stronger argument for the necessity of assertions like (M) for demonstrating IH.

3. Whether Intellectual Humility is a Trait or State

Next, Robinson wonders whether the Demonstration Paradox is founded on a confusion regarding whether IH is taken to be a stable character trait or a fleeting mental state. He considers my resolution of the Demonstration Paradox to be based on an analysis of IH as a state, that is, one can be in a state of IH in one moment and then no longer in a state of IH in the next. I do not disagree that such an interpretation can dissolve the Demonstration Paradox, particularly in the case of Low Concern, but I do not think that he is describing my argument accurately. In what follows, I revisit my analysis of the Demonstration Paradox of Low Self-Assessment, of Low Concern, and of Limitations-Owning to show that I did not consider these dispositions as states.

Consider first the relatively unproblematic (vis-à-vis the paradoxes of humility) account of Limitations-Owning. Suppose Galadriel made a mistake during a class discussion, which she acknowledges afterwards, then said:

(M-LO) ‘That is an example of an act of Limitations-Owning’.

Or to express it in more natural English, “That is an example of owning your limitations.” I argued in my paper that there is nothing problematic with this assertion, since there is nothing about the disposition of Limitations-Owning that is being negated (not even apparently) by uttering (M-LO). It only seems strange when something like “That is an example of intellectual humility” is used, even if “intellectual humility” refers to having a disposition to own one’s limitations. I do not need to claim that Limitations-Owning is a fleeting state rather than a stable trait—though I believe that argument works in its own right—in order to establish this. Even taking Limitations-Owning as a character trait, the apparent Demonstration Paradox disappears ones we get rid of the baggage of the term “humility.”

Next, let us look at the Low Self-Assessment account. Suppose Arwen was praised by one of her students, which she demurs, and then said:

(M-LSA) ‘That is an example of an act of Low Self-Assessment’.

I argued that this, at first glance, seems like an implicit self-attribution, which then reduces this case to the previously discussed Self-Attribution Paradox of Low Self-Assessment. However, I used a crucial distinction between act-evaluation and agent-evaluation to differentiate the Self-Attribution Paradox from the Demonstration Paradox. In the Self-Attribution Paradox, we are evaluating whether Arwen is acting in a way that someone who has Low Self-Assessment would do when she utters “I have Low Self-Assessment.” In the Demonstration Paradox, we are evaluating whether her speech act (M-LSA) is an act that someone who has Low Self-Assessment would do. That is, the Self-Attribution Paradox involves an agent-evaluation, while the Demonstration Paradox involves an act-evaluation. I concluded that (M-LSA) remains paradoxical if it is used to assert one’s intellectual strength, because then it would not be an act that someone with Low Self-Assessment would do. But if it was asserted to demonstrate an act of Low Self-Assessment, then there is nothing in the assertion that betrays Arwen’s having Low Self-Assessment. Here as well, analyzing Low Self-Assessment as a fleeting state is not required.

Finally, consider the most interesting account of Low Concern. Suppose Eowyn demurs her student’s remark about her being the best teacher they had, then said:

(M-LC) ‘That is an example of an act of Low Concern’.

I argued that because of the characterization of Low Concern as a disposition to be inattentive to one’s intellectual status, (M-LC) betrays that supposed inattentiveness because Eowyn could only utter this once she became aware that what she did was an act of Low Concern. Furthermore, I suggested two possible intentions for (M-LC). First, she could have demurred the student’s praise consciously in order to demonstrate an act of Low Concern, that is, it was a deliberate demonstration. Second, she could have demurred the praise by simply being in character—out of having Low Concern, which would make this first act authentic modeling—then noticed it only afterwards and added (M-LC) to maximize the “teaching moment.” In both cases, there is explicit attention involved towards her own act of Low Concern, even if that attention came a bit later in the second case, and that diversion of attention towards one’s previous action is what makes (M-LC) a case that is not characteristic of Low Concern, at least, so I argued in the paper.

Note that in all these three cases, my discussion of the Demonstration Paradoxes of Limitations-Owning, Low Self-Assessment, and Low Concern do not involve a treatment of the respective dispositions as fleeting states rather than stable character traits. Instead, they are based on an analysis of the dispositions themselves and what about each of them feeds the apparent paradox. (M-LO) would have been paradoxical if it does not own one’s limitations (which is not the case, hence no paradox). (M-LSA) is paradoxical only if it is an assertion of one’s intellectual strength (which could be the case). Finally, (M-LC) is necessarily paradoxical since its utterance presupposes turning one’s attention towards prior acts of Low Concern. Again, I do not object against Robinson’s idea that treating IH as a state also solves the paradoxes, but this strategy is not what I used.

That said, Robinson’s comment made me review my argument about the Demonstration Paradox of Low Concern, where I found what could be a critical flaw. Again, I claimed that Eowyn’s attention towards her utterance (M-LC) is what supposedly betrays the act as being characteristic of Low Concern, and therefore what retains the paradoxical quality of the assertion. However, this attention is directed towards her previous action, not towards her intellectual status. Being inattentive to one’s actions is not necessarily the same as being inattentive to one’s intellectual status, and it is the latter that comprises the disposition of Low Concern.

In my assessment of the Self-Attribution Paradox of Low Concern (Clemente 2023, 44), I used the example of Eowyn writing “I have Low Concern” as one of her strengths after being prompted by a psychological counselor (Garcia 2006, 428). While saying “I have Low Concern”—as well as the unanalyzed version “I am humble”—typically implies attention to one’s intellectual status as having at least one intellectual virtue, in this particular case, Eowyn’s self-attribution does not show concern about her intellectual status. Similarly, the teacher Eowyn’s assertion (M-LC) implies awareness that she just did an act of Low Concern, which is not the same as an awareness of her intellectual status. Thus, the Demonstration Paradox of Low Concern follows the similar results from the Self-Attribution Paradox of Low Concern: there can be contexts where (M-LC) can escape the paradox as long as the utterance does not direct one’s attention to one’s intellectual status.

4. Empirical Question

The next issue is Robinson’s suggestion that “whether or not an account of intellectual humility is susceptible to the [demonstration] paradox” is “a question that is better assessed empirically” (Robinson 2023, 14). He then describes an experiment with four conditions, in which the first three simulate the scenarios I described in my paper. A confederate will praise the teacher’s demurring (Low Self-Assessment), dismissing of the praise on their intellectual status (Low Concern), and acknowledgement of a mistake (Limitations-Owning), to which the instructor will utter (M-LSA), (M-LC), and (M-LO) respectively. In the fourth condition (the control setup), the trait that will be modeled could be a different virtue. The participant-”students” would then be asked questions such as whether they found the instructor to be bragging, or whether they are inspired to emulate the act that the instructor performed.

I agree that the suggested experiment might provide an empirical response to the Demonstration Paradox. My only concern would be that using the word “humble” or related words such as “bragging” and “arrogant” might bring out the folk definition of these words, rather than the respective philosophical accounts we have analyzed. For instance, as mentioned above, there is no Demonstration Paradox for the Limitations-Owning account, which is more obvious when (M-LO) is uttered in this way: “That was an example of owning one’s limitations” or  “acknowledging one’s mistakes.” But if it was uttered as “That was an example of intellectual humility,” even if IH was meant to refer to owning one’s limitations, there is a chance that there’s some residual strangeness from the folk meaning of “intellectual humility” that involves, say, not bragging or being unconcerned with one’s intellectual status.

I like the second suggestion of Robinson that involves a behavioral assessment better (2023, 14). In this case, student-participants are placed in a situation that elicits the behavior that the instructor performed. I think that this setup emphasizes the pedagogical aspect of the paradox. Note that the paradox is based on a theoretical question: can we consider the teacher to be demonstrating humility in a humble way? But perhaps that paradox becomes irrelevant if students in fact imitate the teacher afterwards, as Robinson’s proposed behavioral experiment might show. Ultimately, the more interesting question becomes: is the teacher demonstrating acts of IH an effective means of teaching IH? If it is, then whether or not it is theoretically paradoxical is beside the point.

5. Different accounts of IH

Finally, let us consider this question that takes us beyond the bounds of the Demonstration Paradox: how many distinct accounts of IH are there actually? My choice of which accounts of IH to cover in my paper took Snow’s (2019) list as a starting point. Apart from the three I’ve covered in my paper, she also discusses:

Proper Beliefs. IH is the disposition to form proper beliefs about the epistemic statuses of one’s beliefs. (There are two versions of these.)

Semantic Clusters. IH is the trait that involves three semantic clusters: the sensible self, the discreet self, and the inquisitive self.

Cluster of Attitudes. IH is a cluster of attitudes towards one’s cognitive make-up, that comprises modesty about one’s intellectual strengths and acceptance of one’s intellectual limitations.

Confidence Management. IH is a virtue for the management of one’s confidence (2019, 178-179178-179).

On top of this list, Ballantyne (2023) adds:

Attitude Management. IH is a mindset (or disposition or trait) that regulates our attitude-forming practices and our responses to our attitudes (2023, 201).

Robinson wonders whether all these different accounts are mutually exclusive. More importantly, Robinson asks whether “in trying to contrast [these accounts of IH] with one another, we have missed something of the larger picture about intellectual humility in the process” (2023, 12). I’m inclined to agree that these different accounts might be focusing on different aspects of IH, and perhaps IH is more than any individual account that we have enumerated above.

I am not prepared to offer a detailed response to Robinson’s question here. Differentiating between the accounts of IH, or even trying to come up with a “better” account than what have been established in the literature, requires a more comprehensive analysis in a different paper, perhaps even a book-length work. Instead, I hope bringing up vice epistemology would enrich the conversations regarding IH in this direction. Perhaps additional insights can be gained if we also consider the vices that are usually opposed to IH, such as intellectual arrogance, vanity, self-abasement, narcissism, and haughtiness. Tanesini’s (2021) book, The Mismeasure of the Self, offers good analyses on the virtues and vices regarding self-asssessment. I do not have strong positions regarding her account (such as whether IH is a cluster of attitudes), but I like her descriptions and delineations between closely related virtues and vices. Someone who wishes to provide a fuller account of IH, in light of Robinson’s issue about its multiplicity of accounts, might learn a thing or two in Tanesini’s analysis.

5. Conclusion

I deeply appreciate Robinson’s critical engagement with my work. He provided insightful points for discussion, which further got me (and hopefully the readers of this exchange) thinking about my analysis of IH. His remarks about the significance of my work to teaching intellectual virtues were especially encouraging, and I hope interested readers will also pursue some of the questions raised in this dialogue.

Author Information:

Noel L. Clemente,, is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the Ateneo de Manila University. He recently finished his Ph.D. at Macquarie University, where he worked on the intellectual virtues of a teacher. His other research interests include vice epistemology and social epistemology.


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Ballantyne, Nathan 2023. “Recent Work on Intellectual Humility: A Philosopher’s Perspective.”  Journal of Positive Psychology 18 (2): 200–220.

Battaly, Heather. 2006. “Teaching Intellectual Virtues: Applying Virtue Epistemology in the Classroom.”  Teaching Philosophy 29 (3): 191-222. doi: 10.5840/teachphil200629333.

Battaly, Heather. 2016. “Responsibilist Virtues in Reliaiblist Classrooms.” In Intellectual Virtues and Education: Essays in Applied Virtue Epistemology edited by Jason Baehr, 163-183. New York: Routledge.

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Garcia, J.L.A. 2006. “Being Unimpressed with Ourselves: Reconceiving Humility.”  Philosophia 34: 417-435.

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Robinson, Brian. 2021. “I’m SO Humble!”: On The Paradox of Humility.” In The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Humility edited by Mark Alfano, Michael P. Lynch, Alessandra Tanesini, 26–35. London: Routledge.

Robinson, Brian. 2023. “Paradoxical Teaching and the Art of Pedagogically Demonstrating Intellectual Humility.”  Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (4): 10-15.

Snow, Nancy E. 2019. “Intellectual Humility.” In The Routledge Handbook of Virtue Epistemology edited by Heather Battaly, 178-195. New York: Routledge.

Tanesini, Alessandra. 2021. The Mismeasure of the Self: A Study in VIce Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tishman, Shari, David N. Perkins, and Eileen Jay. 1995. The Thinking Classroom: Learning and Teaching in a Culture of Thinking. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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